Despite the strong attachment of many in church leadership to politics as a proper instrument of religion, the alliance of the church and the state has been a historical disaster in every nation. Going all the way back to the Roman emperor, Constantine, history reveals how the state uses the church to support its authority; and the church uses the power of the state to advance its own doctrines and institutional interests. This very country was founded by many who were escaping the oppression of church/state collusion.
In every age the church contends that it has an obligation to exert a strong influence over the political sphere in order to maintain public morality. The presupposition is that immorality, as defined by the church, must be criminalized. The moral universe which the church claims as its realm is thus assumed to include the realm of civil law and its enforcement. Supposedly, the church’s involvement in politics will raise the ethical standards of the political realm and concurrently society as a whole.
Unfortunately, history demonstrates exactly the opposite. Instead of those in the church elevating the ethical conduct of politicians, the very nature of politics invariably pull the church down into the unethical practices which typically characterize successful politics. All high stakes, winner take all, human efforts, like politics, will tend toward ruthlessness, a mindset where ethical restraint becomes a perceived weakness. Therefore to embrace political victories as a church role necessitates subordinating all ethical considerations to the need for a competitive win.
Within the coalition of church and state which is currently so popular, we also witness a loud emphasis on the government’s role in protecting religious freedom. The concept of religious freedom under the theology of evangelical Christianity is paradoxical in the extreme, A religion which demands compliance with its doctrines, under penalty of divine sanction, cannot tolerate the freedom of personal choice in religion.
By its nature, politics is about establishing what is legal and what is subject to enforcement by legal action. What is legal is never the same as what is ethical. Ethics by nature is often extra legal, i.e. outside the definition of what is legal. In fact, as the vast majority would admit, many things which are legal (as in not specifically defined as illegal by any civil law) have a decidedly unethical nature.
Ethical conduct, being beyond the constraints of civil law, require something besides politics to promote and maintain it. Carefully crafted rhetoric (preaching) and exemplary behavior (legitimate Christ likeness) are the only way to advance ethical conduct effectively. Whenever the church forsakes instruction and personal example in favor of political machinations, they become just another special interest group, linked to all the evil inherent in politics.
The sins addressed by a civil law code may be the most visceral and shocking, but the sins of unethical conduct, beyond the reach of civil law, are much, much more common and ultimately vastly more damaging to the well being of a society. Criminal activity is not the greatest threat to our security and well being. Neither are the sins of the flesh about which the church endlessly carps. Our dismissal of the essentiality of personal integrity and a national commitment to inalterable ethical principles are the greatest danger.
Old Covenant Israel was the ultimate union of church and state. That arrangement never maintained righteousness or national unity. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, i.e. not like Israel’s. Insisting on a current day church/state replaces his invisible universal kingdom with the failed one of the past.
Ironically, a national moral deterioration is the actual effect of the church’s obsession with political power.